A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 4.

During the following week Madame Deberle paid a return visit to Madame Grandjean, and displayed an affability that bordered on affection.

“You know what you promised me,” she said, on the threshold, as she was going off. “The first fine day we have, you must come down to the garden, and bring Jeanne with you. It is the doctor’s strict injunction.”

“Very well,” Helene answered, with a smile, “it is understood; we will avail ourselves of your kindness.”

Three days later, on a bright February afternoon, she accompanied her daughter down to the garden. The porter opened the door connecting the two houses. At the near end of the garden, in a kind of greenhouse built somewhat in the style of a Japanese pavilion, they found Madame Deberle and her sister Pauline, both idling away their time, for some embroidery, thrown on the little table, lay there neglected.

“Oh, how good of you to come!” cried Juliette. “You must sit down here. Pauline, move that table away! It is still rather cool you know to sit out of doors, but from this pavilion we can keep a watch on the children. Now, little ones, run away and play; but take care not to fall!”

The large door of the pavilion stood open, and on each side were portable mirrors, whose covers had been removed so that they allowed one to view the garden’s expanse as from the threshold of a tent. The garden, with a green sward in the centre, flanked by beds of flowers, was separated from the Rue Vineuse by a plain iron railing, but against this grew a thick green hedge, which prevented the curious from gazing in. Ivy, clematis, and woodbine clung and wound around the railings, and behind this first curtain of foliage came a second one of lilacs and laburnums. Even in the winter the ivy leaves and the close network of branches sufficed to shut off the view. But the great charm of the garden lay in its having at the far end a few lofty trees, some magnificent elms, which concealed the grimy wall of a five-story house. Amidst all the neighboring houses these trees gave the spot the aspect of a nook in some park, and seemed to increase the dimensions of this little Parisian garden, which was swept like a drawing-room. Between two of the elms hung a swing, the seat of which was green with damp.

Helene leaned forward the better to view the scene.

“Oh, it is a hole!” exclaimed Madame Deberle carelessly. “Still, trees are so rare in Paris that one is happy in having half a dozen of one’s own.”

“No, no, you have a very pleasant place,” murmured Helene.

The sun filled the pale atmosphere that day with a golden dust, its rays streaming slowly through the leafless branches of the trees. These assumed a ruddier tint, and you could see the delicate purple gems softening the cold grey of the bark. On the lawn and along the walks the grass and gravel glittered amidst the haze that seemed to ooze from the ground. No flower was in blossom; only the happy flush which the sunshine cast upon the soil revealed the approach of spring.

“At this time of year it is rather dull,” resumed Madame Deberle. “In June it is as cozy as a nest; the trees prevent any one from looking in, and we enjoy perfect privacy.” At this point she paused to call: “Lucien, you must come away from that watertap!”

The lad, who was doing the honors of the garden, had led Jeanne towards a tap under the steps. Here he had turned on the water, which he allowed to splash on the tips of his boots. It was a game that he delighted in. Jeanne, with grave face, looked on while he wetted his feet.

“Wait a moment!” said Pauline, rising. “I’ll go and stop his nonsense!”

But Juliette held her back.

“You’ll do no such thing; you are even more of a madcap than he is. The other day both of you looked as if you had taken a bath. How is it that a big girl like you cannot remain two minutes seated? Lucien!” she continued directing her eyes on her son, “turn off the water at once!”

The child, in his fright, made an effort to obey her. But instead of turning the tap off, he turned it on all the more, and the water gushed forth with a force and a noise that made him lose his head. He recoiled, splashed up to the shoulders.

“Turn off the water at once!” again ordered his mother, whose cheeks were flushing with anger.

Jeanne, hitherto silent, then slowly, and with the greatest caution, ventured near the tap; while Lucien burst into loud sobbing at sight of this cold stream, which terrified him, and which he was powerless to stop. Carefully drawing her skirt between her legs, Jeanne stretched out her bare hands so as not to wet her sleeves, and closed the tap without receiving a sprinkle. The flow instantly ceased. Lucien, astonished and inspired with respect, dried his tears and gazed with swollen eyes at the girl.

“Oh, that child puts me beside myself!” exclaimed Madame Deberle, her complexion regaining its usual pallor, while she stretched herself out, as though wearied to death.

Helene deemed it right to intervene. “Jeanne,” she called, “take his hand, and amuse yourselves by walking up and down.”

Jeanne took hold of Lucien’s hand, and both gravely paced the paths with little steps. She was much taller than her companion, who had to stretch his arm up towards her; but this solemn amusement, which consisted in a ceremonious circuit of the lawn, appeared to absorb them and invest them with a sense of great importance. Jeanne, like a genuine lady, gazed about, preoccupied with her own thoughts; Lucien every now and then would venture a glance at her; but not a word was said by either.

“How droll they are!” said Madame Deberle, smiling, and again at her ease. “I must say that your Jeanne is a dear, good child. She is so obedient, so well behaved —”

“Yes, when she is in the company of others,” broke in Helene. “She is a great trouble at times. Still, she loves me, and does her best to be good so as not to vex me.”

Then they spoke of children; how girls were more precocious than boys; though it would be wrong to deduce too much from Lucien’s unintelligent face. In another year he would doubtless lose all his gawkiness and become quite a gallant. Finally, Madame Deberle resumed her embroidery, making perhaps two stitches in a minute. Helene, who was only happy when busy, begged permission to bring her work the next time she came. She found her companions somewhat dull, and whiled away the time in examining the Japanese pavilion. The walls and ceiling were hidden by tapestry worked in gold, with designs showing bright cranes in full flight, butterflies, and flowers and views in which blue ships were tossing upon yellow rivers. Chairs, and ironwood flower-stands were scattered about; on the floor some fine mats were spread; while the lacquered furnishings were littered with trinkets, small bronzes and vases, and strange toys painted in all the hues of the rainbow. At the far end stood a grotesque idol in Dresden china, with bent legs and bare, protruding stomach, which at the least movement shook its head with a terrible and amusing look.

“Isn’t it horribly ugly?” asked Pauline, who had been watching Helene as she glanced round. “I say, sister, you know that all these purchases of yours are so much rubbish! Malignon calls your Japanese museum ‘the sixpenny bazaar.’ Oh, by the way, talking of him, I met him. He was with a lady, and such a lady — Florence, of the Varietes Theatre.”

“Where was it?” asked Juliette immediately. “How I shall tease him!”

“On the boulevards. He’s coming here to-day, is he not?”

She was not vouchsafed any reply. The ladies had all at once become uneasy owing to the disappearance of the children, and called to them. However, two shrill voices immediately answered:

“We are here!”

Half hidden by a spindle tree, they were sitting on the grass in the middle of the lawn.

“What are you about?”

“We have put up at an inn,” answered Lucien. “We are resting in our room.”

Greatly diverted, the women watched them for a time. Jeanne seemed quite contented with the game. She was cutting the grass around her, doubtless with the intention of preparing breakfast. A piece of wood, picked up among the shrubs, represented a trunk. And now they were talking. Jeanne, with great conviction in her tone, was declaring that they were in Switzerland, and that they would set out to see the glaciers, which rather astonished Lucien.

“Ha, here he is!” suddenly exclaimed Pauline.

Madame Deberle turned, and caught sight of Malignon descending the steps. He had scarcely time to make his bow and sit down before she attacked him.

“Oh,” she said, “it is nice of you to go about everywhere saying that I have nothing but rubbishy ornaments about me!”

“You mean this little saloon of yours? Oh yes,” said he, quite at his ease. “You haven’t anything worth looking at here!”

“What! not my china figure?” she asked, quite hurt.

“No, no, everything is quite bourgeois. It is necessary for a person to have some taste. You wouldn’t allow me to select the things —”

“Your taste, forsooth! just talk about your taste!” she retorted, flushing crimson and feeling quite angry. “You have been seen with a lady —”

“What lady?” he asked, surprised by the violence of the attack.

“A fine choice, indeed! I compliment you on it. A girl whom the whole of Paris knows —”

She suddenly paused, remembering Pauline’s presence.

“Pauline,” she said, “go into the garden for a minute.”

“Oh no,” retorted the girl indignantly. “It’s so tiresome; I’m always being sent out of the way.”

“Go into the garden,” repeated Juliette, with increased severity in her tone.

The girl stalked off with a sullen look, but stopped all at once, to exclaim: “Well, then, be quick over your talk!”

As soon as she was gone, Madame Deberle returned to the charge. “How can you, a gentleman, show yourself in public with that actress Florence? She is at least forty. She is ugly enough to frighten one, and all the gentlemen in the stalls thee and thou her on first nights.”

“Have you finished?” called out Pauline, who was strolling sulkily under the trees. “I’m not amusing myself here, you know.”

Malignon, however, defended himself. He had no knowledge of this girl Florence; he had never in his life spoken a word to her. They had possibly seen him with a lady: he was sometimes in the company of the wife of a friend of his. Besides, who had seen him? He wanted proofs, witnesses.

“Pauline,” hastily asked Madame Deberle, raising her voice, “did you not meet him with Florence?”

“Yes, certainly,” replied her sister. “I met them on the boulevards opposite Bignon’s .”

Thereupon, glorying in her victory over Malignon, whose face wore an embarrassed smile, Madame Deberle called out: “You can come back, Pauline; I have finished.”

Malignon, who had a box at the Folies-Dramatiques for the following night, now gallantly placed it at Madame Deberle’s service, apparently not feeling the slightest ill-will towards her; moreover, they were always quarreling. Pauline wished to know if she might go to see the play that was running, and as Malignon laughed and shook his head, she declared it was very silly; authors ought to write plays fit for girls to see. She was only allowed such entertainments as La Dame Blanche and the classic drama could offer.

Meantime, the ladies had ceased watching the children, and all at once Lucien began to raise terrible shrieks.

“What have you done to him, Jeanne?” asked Helene.

“I have done nothing, mamma,” answered the little girl. “He has thrown himself on the ground.”

The truth was, the children had just set out for the famous glaciers. As Jeanne pretended that they were reaching the mountains, they had lifted their feet very high, as though to step over the rocks. Lucien, however, quite out of breath with his exertions, at last made a false step, and fell sprawling in the middle of an imaginary ice-field. Disgusted, and furious with child-like rage, he no sooner found himself on the ground than he burst into tears.

“Lift him up,” called Helene.

“He won’t let me, mamma. He is rolling about.”

And so saying, Jeanne drew back, as though exasperated and annoyed by such a display of bad breeding. He did not know how to play; he would certainly cover her with dirt. Her mouth curled, as though she were a duchess compromising herself by such companionship. Thereupon Madame Deberle, irritated by Lucien’s continued wailing, requested her sister to pick him up and coax him into silence. Nothing loth, Pauline ran, cast herself down beside the child, and for a moment rolled on the ground with him. He struggled with her, unwilling to be lifted, but she at last took him up by the arms, and to appease him, said, “Stop crying, you noisy fellow; we’ll have a swing!”

Lucien at once closed his lips, while Jeanne’s solemn looks vanished, and a gleam of ardent delight illumined her face. All three ran towards the swing, but it was Pauline who took possession of the seat.

“Push, push!” she urged the children; and they pushed with all the force of their tiny hands; but she was heavy, and they could scarcely stir the swing.

“Push!” she urged again. “Oh, the big sillies, they can’t!”

In the pavilion, Madame Deberle had just felt a slight chill. Despite the bright sunshine she thought it rather cold, and she requested Malignon to hand her a white cashmere burnous that was hanging from the handle of a window fastening. Malignon rose to wrap the burnous round her shoulders, and they began chatting familiarly on matters which had little interest for Helene. Feeling fidgety, fearing that Pauline might unwittingly knock the children down, she therefore stepped into the garden, leaving Juliette and the young man to wrangle over some new fashion in bonnets which apparently deeply interested them.

Jeanne no sooner saw her mother than she ran towards her with a wheedling smile, and entreaty in every gesture. “Oh, mamma, mamma!” she implored. “Oh, mamma!”

“No, no, you mustn’t!” replied Helene, who understood her meaning very well. “You know you have been forbidden.”

Swinging was Jeanne’s greatest delight. She would say that she believed herself a bird; the breeze blowing in her face, the lively rush through the air, the continued swaying to and fro in a motion as rythmic as the beating of a bird’s wings, thrilled her with an exquisite pleasure; in her ascent towards cloudland she imagined herself on her way to heaven. But it always ended in some mishap. On one occasion she had been found clinging to the ropes of the swing in a swoon, her large eyes wide open, fixed in a vacant stare; at another time she had fallen to the ground, stiff, like a swallow struck by a shot.

“Oh, mamma!” she implored again. “Only a little, a very, very little!”

In the end her mother, in order to win peace, placed her on the seat. The child’s face lit up with an angelic smile, and her bare wrists quivered with joyous expectancy. Helene swayed her very gently.

“Higher, mamma, higher!” she murmured.

But Helene paid no heed to her prayer, and retained firm hold of the rope. She herself was glowing all over, her cheeks flushed, and she thrilled with excitement at every push she gave to the swing. Her wonted sedateness vanished as she thus became her daughter’s playmate.

“That will do,” she declared after a time, taking Jeanne in her arms.

“Oh, mamma, you must swing now!” the child whispered, as she clung to her neck.

She took a keen delight in seeing her mother flying through the air; as she said, her pleasure was still more intense in gazing at her than in having a swing herself. Helene, however, asked her laughingly who would push her; when she went in for swinging, it was a serious matter; why, she went higher than the treetops! While she was speaking it happened that Monsieur Rambaud made his appearance under the guidance of the doorkeeper. He had met Madame Deberle in Helene’s rooms, and thought he would not be deemed presuming in presenting himself here when unable to find her. Madame Deberle proved very gracious, pleased as she was with the good-natured air of the worthy man; however, she soon returned to a lively discussion with Malignon.

Bon ami* will push you, mamma! Bon ami will push you!” Jeanne called out, as she danced round her mother.

* Literally “good friend;” but there is no proper equivalent for the expression in English.

“Be quiet! We are not at home!” said her mother with mock gravity.

“Bless me! if it will please you, I am at your disposal,” exclaimed Monsieur Rambaud. “When people are in the country —”

Helene let herself be persuaded. When a girl she had been accustomed to swing for hours, and the memory of those vanished pleasures created a secret craving to taste them once more. Moreover, Pauline, who had sat down with Lucien at the edge of the lawn, intervened with the boldness of a girl freed from the trammels of childhood.

“Of course he will push you, and he will swing me after you. Won’t you, sir?”

This determined Helene. The youth which dwelt within her, in spite of the cold demureness of her great beauty, displayed itself in a charming, ingenuous fashion. She became a thorough school-girl, unaffected and gay. There was no prudishness about her. She laughingly declared that she must not expose her legs, and asked for some cord to tie her skirts securely round her ankles. That done, she stood upright on the swing, her arms extended and clinging to the ropes.

“Now, push, Monsieur Rambaud,” she exclaimed delightedly. “But gently at first!”

Monsieur Rambaud had hung his hat on the branch of a tree. His broad, kindly face beamed with a fatherly smile. First he tested the strength of the ropes, and, giving a look at the trees, determined to give a slight push. That day Helene had for the first time abandoned her widow’s weeds; she was wearing a grey dress set off with mauve bows. Standing upright, she began to swing, almost touching the ground, and as if rocking herself to sleep.

“Quicker! quicker!” she exclaimed.

Monsieur Rambaud, with his hands ready, caught the seat as it came back to him, and gave it a more vigorous push. Helene went higher, each ascent taking her farther. However, despite the motion, she did not lose her sedateness; she retained almost an austre demeanor; her eyes shone very brightly in her beautiful, impassive face; her nostrils only were inflated, as though to drink in the air.

Not a fold of her skirts was out of place, but a plait of her hair slipped down.

“Quicker! quicker!” she called.

An energetic push gave her increased impetus. Up in the sunshine she flew, even higher and higher. A breeze sprung up with her motion, and blew through the garden; her flight was so swift that they could scarcely distinguish her figure aright. Her face was now all smiles, and flushed with a rosy red, while her eyes sparkled here, then there, like shooting stars. The loosened plait of hair rustled against her neck. Despite the cords which bound them, her skirts now waved about, and you could divine that she was at her ease, her bosom heaving in its free enjoyment as though the air were indeed her natural place.

“Quicker! quicker!”

Monsieur Rambaud, his face red and bedewed with perspiration, exerted all his strength. A cry rang out. Helene went still higher.

“Oh, mamma! Oh, mamma!” repeated Jeanne in her ecstasy.

She was sitting on the lawn gazing at her mother, her little hands clasped on her bosom, looking as though she herself had drunk in all the air that was stirring. Her breath failed her; with a rythmical movement of the shoulders she kept time with the long strokes of the swing. And she cried, “Quicker! quicker!” while her mother still went higher, her feet grazing the lofty branches of the trees.

“Higher, mamma! oh, higher, mamma!”

But Helene was already in the very heavens. The trees bent and cracked as beneath a gale. Her skirts, which were all they could see, flapped with a tempestuous sound. When she came back with arms stretched out and bosom distended she lowered her head slightly and for a moment hovered; but then she rose again and sank backwards, her head tilted, her eyes closed, as though she had swooned. These ascensions and descents which made her giddy were delightful. In her flight she entered into the sunshine — the pale yellow February sunshine that rained down like golden dust. Her chestnut hair gleamed with amber tints; and a flame seemed to have leaped up around her, as the mauve bows on her whitening dress flashed like burning flowers. Around her the springtide was maturing into birth, and the purple-tinted gems of the trees showed like delicate lacquer against the blue sky.

Jeanne clasped her hands. Her mother seemed to her a saint with a golden glory round her head, winging her way to paradise, and she again stammered: “Oh, mamma! oh! mamma!”

Madame Deberle and Malignon had now grown interested, and had stepped under the trees. Malignon declared the lady to be very bold.

“I should faint, I’m sure,” said Madame Deberle, with a frightened air.

Helene heard them, for she dropped these words from among the branches: “Oh, my heart is all right! Give a stronger push, Monsieur Rambaud!”

And indeed her voice betrayed no emotion. She seemed to take no heed of the two men who were onlookers. They were doubtless nothing to her. Her tress of hair had become entangled, and the cord that confined her skirts must have given way, for the drapery flapped in the wind like a flag. She was going still higher.

All at once, however, the exclamation rang out:

“Enough, Monsieur Rambaud, enough!”

Doctor Deberle had just appeared on the house steps. He came forward, embraced his wife tenderly, took up Lucien and kissed his brow. Then he gazed at Helene with a smile.

“Enough, enough!” she still continued exclaiming.

“Why?” asked he. “Do I disturb you?”

She made no answer; a look of gravity had suddenly come over her face. The swing, still continuing its rapid flights, owing to the impetus given to it, would not stop, but swayed to and fro with a regular motion which still bore Helene to a great height. The doctor, surprised and charmed, beheld her with admiration; she looked so superb, so tall and strong, with the pure figure of an antique statue whilst swinging thus gently amid the spring sunshine. But she seemed annoyed, and all at once leaped down.

“Stop! stop!” they all cried out.

From Helene’s lips came a dull moan; she had fallen upon the gravel of a pathway, and her efforts to rise were fruitless.

“Good heavens!” exclaimed the doctor, his face turning very pale. “How imprudent!”

They all crowded round her. Jeanne began weeping so bitterly that Monsieur Rambaud, with his heart in his mouth, was compelled to take her in his arms. The doctor, meanwhile, eagerly questioned Helene.

“Is it the right leg you fell on? Cannot you stand upright?” And as she remained dazed, without answering, he asked: “Do you suffer?”

“Yes, here at the knee; a dull pain,” she answered, with difficulty.

He at once sent his wife for his medicine case and some bandages, and repeated:

“I must see, I must see. No doubt it is a mere nothing.”

He knelt down on the gravel and Helene let him do so; but all at once she struggled to her feet and said: “No, no!”

“But I must examine the place,” he said.

A slight quiver stole over her, and she answered in a yet lower tone:

“It is not necessary. It is nothing at all.”

He looked at her, at first astounded. Her neck was flushing red; for a moment their eyes met, and seemed to read each other’s soul; he was disconcerted, and slowly rose, remaining near her, but without pressing her further.

Helene had signed to Monsieur Rambaud. “Fetch Doctor Bodin,” she whispered in his ear, “and tell him what has happened to me.”

Ten minutes later, when Doctor Bodin made his appearance, she, with superhuman courage, regained her feet, and leaning on him and Monsieur Rambaud, contrived to return home. Jeanne followed, quivering with sobs.

“I shall wait,” said Doctor Deberle to his brother physician. “Come down and remove our fears.”

In the garden a lively colloquy ensued. Malignon was of opinion that women had queer ideas. Why on earth had that lady been so foolish as to jump down? Pauline, excessively provoked at this accident, which deprived her of a pleasure, declared it was silly to swing so high. On his side Doctor Deberle did not say a word, but seemed anxious.

“It is nothing serious,” said Doctor Bodin, as he came down again —“only a sprain. Still, she will have to keep to an easy-chair for at least a fortnight.”

Thereupon Monsieur Deberle gave a friendly slap on Malignon’s shoulder. He wished his wife to go in, as it was really becoming too cold. For his own part, taking Lucien in his arms, he carried him into the house, covering him with kisses the while.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06